The Hero’s Journey always has a specific goal, and a major obstacle: a dragon to be slain. In most Occidental tales, the dragon is quite literal: a fire-breathing reptile with towering strength, powerful wings and fearsome teeth ready to devour.
While I was a college student, I was also working as a performer in New York City, where I had the honor to be part of a production at The Open Eye, a theatre owned by Joseph Campbell and his wife Jean Erdman. Jean was a well-known dancer and choreographer. Joseph was the respected author of The Hero with a Thousand Faces, and later went on to become an iconic figure in his own right as the subject of multiple interview series including those with Bill Moyers for PBS television.
Joseph was the originator of the now universally famous advice to “follow your bliss.” His multi-cultural spiritual and myth studies became foundational to the Star Wars films as a result of George Lucas’s ongoing consults with Campbell. And he was among the most delightful persons in the world. Conversations with him were at once natural and inspiring, comfortable and riveting.
From James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake—a book he loved and also knew intimately because from it Jean created an Obie-winning dance-drama The Coach with the Six Insides—Joseph borrowed the word monomyth, another term for the hero’s journey. What he discerned was a commonality amongst the myths and stories from many cultures, siting the structure and the particular chapters that are its landmarks.
The journey often begins when the hero least expects. Enmeshed in the details of his mundane existence, he (or she) receives a “call to adventure.” Some heros rush forward to gain the prize, which may be nothing more than a vague longing at first. Like Theseus, they vanquish the Minotaur and gain a kingdom, or like Bill Gates they create an empire with apparent ease. Some heros resist the adventure with all their might, and wind up a Jonas in the belly of the whale, an Odysseus, tossed on the seas for many years; or a late bloomer like Julia Child, first published at 50, or Colonel Sanders who created his franchise at age 65. Some refuse the call all together, at which point the adventure turns negative—Lot’s wife, mesmerized by the past, turned into a pillar of salt.
For those who answer the call, something fantastic happens. The universe begins to conspire on the side of the hero or heroine, providing guides, magical helpers, angels, tools, and signs to mark the path—signs that might not make sense to anyone else.
This is a good thing, for the journey is fraught with dangers. Somewhere along the line, there’s always a temptation. (Among the many meanings of my first name, “Mara” is named as the last temptress sent to distract Buddha before he attained Nirvana.) And, of course, inevitably the hero will face his or her own personal dragon, usually when many other challenges have already been met and the goal is at hand.
So what is this dragon? I think it’s fear. Maybe we could say it’s F.E.A.R.—False Evidence Appearing Real. When its component parts are disassembled like a Transformer toy, and the appearition is stripped of substance, what qualities does it really represent? None. It really has no history, no reality, no substance. It’s a “nothing”—a mythical, imaginary non-existence beast—swollen into “something”—an overwhelming fear probably left over from childhood monsters imagined beneath the bed.
So what’s your dragon? Will it take head or heart to slay it? For me, it’ll take both. It’ll take a total commitment to the heroine’s journey. In this year of the dragon, let’s hear the call to adventure and vanquish our fears.
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